U.S.-Russian relations are at one of their lowest points since the end of the Cold War—and there seems to be little appetite for improvement on the part of the Trump administration and Congress.
Egged on by anti-Russia hysteria in many parts of the American media, Congress has imposed new sanctions to penalize Moscow over its alleged meddling in the 2016 election. The sanctions legislation was written in such a way that the president cannot waive its requirements, which all but guarantees that they will remain the law—and an impediment to better relations—for a very long time to come.
Thanks to the many questionable contacts between some members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials, the administration has been unable to pursue any constructive engagement with Moscow without triggering accusations of doing Russia’s bidding. The administration’s response to this predicament has usually been to echo the most conventional hawkish views on disputed issues and make no concerted effort to repair frayed ties with the Russian government.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently delivered a speech at the Wilson Center in which he described Russia primarily in terms of the threat that it posed to Europe. Even as he stated that the U.S. desires a “productive new relationship” with Moscow, he framed previous breakdowns in relations as being purely the result of Russian “aggression.” In Tillerson’s oversimplified telling, “both attempts by the prior administration to reset the Russia and U.S.-Europe relationships have been followed by Russia invading its neighbor.” But that is not quite how things unfolded.
The 2008 war to which Tillerson refers was a product of the Georgian government’s recklessness, its overconfidence in Western promises, and the profoundly misguided allied pledge at the Bucharest NATO summit that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become members of the alliance. Whatever “reset” George W. Bush attempted early in his first term had long since given way to repeatedly antagonizing Moscow by withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, launching the Iraq war, promoting missile defense in central Europe, NATO expansion in eastern Europe, and U.S. support for the so-called “color” revolutions in the former Soviet Union.
The Obama-era “reset” achieved some initial successes, but this soon stalled out and was replaced by resentment over the passage of the Magnitsky Act and the bait-and-switch intervention for regime change in Libya that Russia had been persuaded not to oppose. Confrontation over the civil war in Syria also contributed significantly to the souring of U.S.-Russian relations. By the time the political crisis in Ukraine erupted in 2014, the hopeful atmosphere created by the “reset” was long gone, and the U.S. and allied response to that crisis contributed to further deterioration. If our government officials fail to recognize the U.S. role in creating bad relations between Washington and Moscow, they are bound to keep repeating the mistakes that their predecessors made.
All of this raises a question: Is a normal, productive relationship with Russia possible for the U.S.? Despite the significant obstacles outlined above, the answer is still yes.
As bad as relations have become over the last few years, they are still nowhere near as toxic and dangerous as they were at various points during the Cold War. That should show us that the U.S. and Russia have far fewer reasons to be at odds than in the past, and that our disagreements are much more manageable. Present-day Russia also has fewer ambitious goals for its foreign policy than the USSR did and poses much less of a threat to the U.S. and our allies. Nothing compels the U.S. to compete with Russia in its own backyard, and no U.S. interests are threatened by Russia’s maintenance of its handful of clients. In short, the U.S. and Russia do not have to be rivals in most cases, and the U.S. has no need to counter Russia wherever it has influence.
It is important for European stability and international security more generally that the U.S. and Russia fashion a cooperative relationship that will allow both to secure mutual interests and manage their disagreements. When the two powers have been on reasonably good terms, tensions between Russia and its neighbors have also declined, which is in the interests of all concerned.
The benefits of an improved relationship aren’t limited only to Europe. A constructive relationship with Russia is very much needed to address many international problems, including but not limited to terrorism, securing nuclear materials, and resolving long-running conflicts. We have seen hints of what that cooperation can achieve in recent years with the Iran nuclear deal and the new arms reduction treaty with Russia, both of which required sustained diplomatic engagement. In order to repair ties with Russia, our government will need to make a similar effort over the long term, with Washington refraining from taking further provocative actions.
A good place for the Trump administration to start would be to reject the plan to send arms to Ukraine. Such a policy would be unwise in itself—and disastrous for any chance at improving America’s relationship with Russia.
Daniel Larison is senior editor at The American Conservative.